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Dirty Playing in Competition

by Ron Kurtus (7 June 2007)

Dirty playing is purposely doing something to your opponent so that the person or organization cannot continue in the competition. The victory is then by default.

While this is acceptable behavior in war, it is considered illegal or at least unethical in most other competitions. Purposely preventing the opponent from continuing transcends the purpose of the competition. In such a case, the dirty player is not concerned with proving who is best as much as getting the prize by any means possible.

Dirty playing is often seen in sports, business and political competitions.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.


A major motivation in sports and athletic competition is to show who is the best. There is also the joy of pushing yourself to your limits during the contest. Although winning is more fun, you can even have satisfaction in losing if you did your best and put up a good fight against a superior foe.

But in high-stakes competition, such as professional sports, the prize and money from the victory can overshadow simply doing your best and proving who is better. This is when some may play dirty in order to win by any means possible. But also, some competitors have such as desire to win, even if by default, that they do unethical acts to help their ego.

Sometimes athletes will injure an opponent as part of the game, making it seem like an accident. Others purposely will prevent the opponent from competing. Also, there are some who play dirty as an act of desperation.

Dirty but not to disable

It is difficult to document dirty play in physical sports. Purposely tripping an opponent in soccer or fighting in a hockey game can be considered dirty playing and may draw a penalty, but they seldom are true efforts to disable an opponent.

Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders football team called himself "Assassin" because of his hard and viscous play against opponents. In a 1978 pre-season game, he tackled New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley so violently that Stingley was permanently paralyzing. Tatum claimed this was just rough play and not an effort to injure the opponent.

Purposely injure opponent

The best example of purposely preventing an opponent from competing happened in 1994 when figure skater Tonya Harding allegedly had someone try to eliminate Nancy Kerrgian from a skating competition by whacking her on the leg with a club.

In professional basketball, one player was recently accused of kicking the star player of the opposing team in the achilles tendon, thus disabling him and allowing his team to win.

Act of desperation

Sometimes a competitor is losing badly, so he will do something to try to hurt the opponent in an act of desperation. Of course, that does not justify the dirty play.

Boxer Gerry Cooney was fighting Larry Holmes for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1982. Holmes was thoroughly beating Cooney, who seemed to purposely swung an uppercut into Holmes' groin area. In fact he did this twice and was threatened with disqualification in the fight. Although it hurt Holmes, it was not enough to affect him, as he later won by a technical knock out.


In business competitions, there really is no clear winner until one company has a monopoly. Usually, the competition between companies is to see who has the greatest market share. Dirty business consists of preventing the competition from doing business at all or by harming their ability such that they are no longer a threat.


Businesses have been known to sabotage their opponent's facilities and even start them on fire as a way to prevent them from competing. Others have used methods to hurt the production or deliveries from suppliers.

In 1962 the Studebaker Avanti automobile was introduced as a competitor to the Chevrolet Corvette. Unfortunately, they soon ran into serious production problems, because their fiberglass body was being made by the same company that made the Corvette's body. Rumors were that Chevrolet pressured the fiberglass company, resulting in hurting the production of the Avanti automobiles. Studebaker was forced to cease production of the car in 1963.


Some extreme cases of dirty play in business competition has been to threaten or even kill the leaders of the competitor and to make efforts to prevent workers from showing up on the job. This is especially seen in small businesses, like in the construction trade.

Unions are in competition with companies for the amount of money and benefits their workers receive. Although strikes are not considered dirty playing, threats to other workers and sabotage to the company are dirty ways to force the concessions.


In politics, the winner is declared by the judgment of the voters. Dirty politics consists of spreading lies to sway the voters, preventing opposition party voters from casting ballots, having the opponent arrested, threatening the opponent, or even assassinating the candidate.

In the 1972 presidential campaign, members of Richard Nixon's administration broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. in order to get information they could use to undermine the Democratic campaign. This effort at a "dirty trick" was unsuccessful. It may have been motivated by "dirty tricks" Democrats had previously played on Nixon. (See Did Dick Tuck Cause Watergate? for more information.)

In the 2004 presidential election, Democratic workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, slashed the tires of the vans owned by Republicans as a way to prevent them from transporting voters to the voting areas.

In many countries, candidates have been assassinated before the election. Also, voters have been prevented from voting as a way to stop a candidate.


Dirty playing is purposely doing something underhanded to prevent your opponent from continuing in the competition. The dirty player is not concerned with proving who is best as much as getting the prize of the victory by any means possible. Dirty playing is often seen in sports, business and political competitions.

You never really win with dirty playing

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